Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wilson Peak - 14,017

Looking up SW Ridge of Wilson Peak from the Gladstone saddle

From the Navajo Lake side Wilson Peak is not all that impressive. It even seems vaguely antisocial, slouching alone off to the north and having precious little to do with Gladstone - scrappy baby brother at almost 14 thousand feet - through a low and lengthy connecting ridge. Wilson itself makes the grade only barely, being seventh lowest of all the 14ers (Sunshine is the lowest, my next project). Yet while Wilson from the south may look nondescript, a wearisome slog up sheets of rubble, you underestimate it at your own peril. It has its sinister side.

That's going overboard - better to say it has its "serious side." They all do. Seeing that side nearly always requires patience and ambition, and so those sides are rarely visited. Taking a more recent case, I never knew the Wetterhorn even had a North Face until I saw it from the summit of neighboring Uncompaghre: 800 or so feet of vertical rock, getting to which involves a healthy hump up the East Fork of the Cimmarron River carrying all the gear necessary for six pitches of 5.7. Yet if this side of the Wetterhorn is hard to spot at a distance, not so the Northeast Face of Wilson Peak. It dominates the view from Telluride, towers over the trophy homes west of the San Miguel, and provides a stark backdrop for postcard pictures of turning aspens shot from State Road 145. It is not that hard to get to, or at least it didn't used to be, by striking eastward from the mining road below Silver Pick Basin towards the base of the Northeast Face. I know this from a previous reconnaissance. Since that time the owners of the surrounding land have closed off this approach. Until such time as private interests give way to the public demand, therefore, a springtime ascent and ski descent of the Northeast Face, having long been on my wish list, will have to stay there a little while longer. And until such time as you have visited all sides of a peak, never assume you have seen it all.

I slept in my truck at the Burro Bridge trailhead in July of 2002 - the same trailhead that Kim and I had reached in near total darkness 23 years before - and started hiking around 4 AM. Knowing this to be a gentle two-and-a-half hour hike through lush meadows, I expected to be putting away my headlamp about the time I entered the higher basin. Sunrise at Navajo Lake found folks stirring in all the scattered camps. I had the jump on them all and proceeded up-basin towards the Rock of Ages Mine that lies just below the saddle with Silver Pick Basin. The saddle itself was a virtual logjam of humanity, all from the high-reaching road on the north side. A little farther up from here the North Ridge of Gladstone (13,913) took off and from then on the route followed the ridge proper, past a deep notch about halfway to make the heart pump a little, after which the summit arrives promptly.

Above, looking down on a party at the notch

Below, me and a couple of guys I teamed up with on the summit (their partner took the shot)

These guys had just come from Sneffels the day before and I told them I was heading that way myself tomorrow, to climb it a third time via the Southwest Ridge.

It is obscene how close you can drive to Sneffels from Yankee Boy Basin. And if I thought Wilson was crowded, I hadn't seen anything yet. But if you can't lick 'em, join 'em they say. My next two 14ers the following year were chosen expressly for their quick approach.

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